Monday musings on Australian literature: The Miles Franklin Rights Project

Some months ago, I became aware of The Miles Franklin Rights Project, and of course, it piqued my interest, so I flagged it for a future Monday Musings. The project apparently commenced in early 2021, and is still continuing. Before I describe the project, though, I need to explain for non-Aussie readers here that the Miles Franklin Award, though no longer Australia’s most valuable award in monetary terms (albeit is still generous), is arguably our most prestigious literary award. It is also one of our oldest, having been first awarded in 1957. That first winner was Patrick White’s Voss.

So now, the project …

It is led by Dr Airlie Lawson, who is “a literary sociologist and cartographer, a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Postdoctoral Fellow on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project (on which I posted earlier this year) at the University of Melbourne”. The project intrigues me because it asks some questions that are dear my heart. Here is how it is introduced on the AustLit website, which is funding the project:

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in Chinese
Chinese edition of Carpentaria

Over the last 21 years, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by many acclaimed Australian novels including Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Peter Temple’s Truth and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. But which of these novels has been published internationally—where and in what languages? And shortlisted titles—have they had international success? Is there a discernable gender difference? Associations between publishers? What about change over time? How might we find out?

The site goes on to say that

Globally, publishers and agents report a strong association between literary awards and prizes in international interest in a novel and, subsequently, the licensing of the publishing rights internationally.

The problem is that there’s been little research into what impact awards and prizes have had on rights transactions. A prerequisite for such research, really, is “a comprehensive set of international editions” of Miles Franklin Award winners, but this has not been easy to find. Consequently, the aim of this project is “to create such a list—and to create an efficient, accurate international edition identification model that can be used for other AustLit projects”. They are focusing on the novels which won or were shortlisted for the award from 2000 to 2020. This list, which comprises 22 winners and 93 shortlisted titles, will provide, they hope, a basis from which the global impact and value of this award can be explored.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy tracking down the editions, but they are starting with two major international book databases: WorldCat (library-supplied data) and GoodReads (crowdsourced). As you would expect from an academic project, the information obtained from these databases, and elsewhere, is then checked against multiple sources, including authors, agents and publishers.

You can read about the project on the AustLit website. In fact, this website was my major source for this post, but I did find information about a paper given (via Zoom) by Airlie Lawson in May this year. The paper was titled “How Global is Australian Literature in the 21st century? A story of gender, genre and the international literary field”. The talks’ description says that the “paper draws primarily on data produced for the Conditions of Access (COA) project*, supplemented by data from the industry report Success Story (Crosby et al) and AustLit’s The Miles Franklin Rights Project. Specifically, it draws on data relating to what the COA project models as international rights ‘transactions’ for adult novels first published in print between 2000-2020″. The description also says this:

Analysis of this data reveals several rather different accounts of international access over a twenty-year period, but all have one element in comment: in contrast with the domestic field, they tell a positive story for women authors. 

Interesting, but not wholly surprising, because anecdotally-speaking, at least, my sense is that many of our women writers are finding their way to overseas readers. We are seeing it in posts by international bloggers, for a start. Presumably Lawson explored why this might be the case. The point she makes here is not comparing our women with our men authors overseas, but our women authors overseas versus them at home.

I also found a Q&A with Lawson. The first question concerned the inspiration for the project, and Lawson responded that

There’s been a lot of discussion in Australia about literary prizes in recent years—the cost of entering, the type of books more likely [to] win them, their proliferation—but there’s no question that a prize win can boost copy sales. I wanted to find out if there was a similar effect on international rights licensing.

Anecdotally, she said, Australian industry professionals claim some do have an influence, and her own research has supported this, but there’s no “reliable comprehensive data set of international editions” to enable this to be properly proved (or not). On why she chose the Miles Franklin Award as her basis, she said that

  • it is often described as Australia’s “most prestigious literary award”;
  • it’s long running (though they are starting with a 21-year period); and
  • it stipulates Australian content, so “examining the international publication records for works associated with it can tell us something about how Australian literary culture is valued internationally”.

As for who the research is for, it’s broad: it’s for other researchers (of course), students, readers, book clubs, and publishers.

Certainly, as a reader and book-club member, I am fascinated by the publishing environment within which authors work, and what can help them reach more readers. Moreover, as one who loves to read works from overseas writers, I am also keen to see overseas readers read our writers. Consequently, I love the idea of this project.

Does such research interest you – and why, if it does?

* The Conditions of Access project is another Airlie Lawson project. Its aim was, said the talk’s description, “to better understand, from a data-driven and conceptual perspective, where, when and why Australian novels have travelled in the early years of the twenty-first century”.

Miles Franklin Award 2022 winner announced

While once again I haven’t read (yet, anyhow) any of the Miles Franklin shortlist, I do try each year to announce the winner of this significant Australian literary award.

You may remember that this year’s shortlist was:

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light 
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review)
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

And the winner is: Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light

Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki. 

So, more on the winner …

The book was published by Text Publishing, and in their email announcing the winner they shared the thoughts of Michael Heyward, Text’s publisher:

Bodies of Light  is a transformative novel that gives epic scope to the life of a single soul. To read it is to be immersed in it. All of us at Text are thrilled at the news of Jennifer Down’s Miles Franklin win, and offer her our heartfelt congratulations.’

And of senior editor Alaina Gougoulis:

‘What an incredible recognition of Jennifer Down and all she has achieved with Bodies of Light. The abundant talent on display in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, has been fully realised in this book, an intimate story of one life told on an epic scale: heartbreaking, and yet brimming with hope and beauty. That she is still so early in her career should fill us with optimism about the future of Australian writing. I am beyond thrilled for her, as her editor and as her friend. Warmest congratulations to Jenn, from all at Text.’

The announcement has already been reported by the usual sources, like the ABC, The Guardian, The Conversation, and so on. Canberra’s Jen Webb wrote The Conversation’s article. As she says, Down already has some runs on the board: she won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year award for her debut novel, Our magic hour in 2017, and again in 2018 for her short story collection Pulse points.

Webb shares that the judges commended the book as “a novel of affirmation, resilience and survival, told through an astonishing voice that reinvents itself from six to 60”, and she describes it herself as follows:

Under interrogation-level lighting, it confronts the institutional “care” offered to the most vulnerable of people: little children, labile adolescents, and traumatised youth. Any society that routinely fails to provide children with the care they need to grow into secure adulthood is a society that needs a critical light shone on it. In the most lyrical, gentle language, this is precisely what Bodies of light does.

It’s a book that interests me. Indeed, Down has interested me since Pulse points appeared (and for which there is a guest post on my blog).

(BTW: In last year’s winner post, I provided a link to an article by Pallavi Singhal in The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on How to win the Miles Franklin: Analysing 64 years of data. You might like to revisit that in the light of today’s win!)

Do you have any thoughts on this year’s winner?

Miles Franklin Award 2022 shortlist

I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, and if any of you have been following the award you will know that controversy has, once again, hit it, with one of the longlisted books, John Hughes’ The dogs, being withdrawn on the grounds of plagiarism. That’s a shame for me, as it was the only one on the longlist that I had read, although I will be reading another longlisted book next month.

The shortlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you, is, writes The Guardian*, “the third instalment of an auto-fictional series exploring the life of a young Muslim boy in western Sydney named Bani Adam”. It follows The Lebs which was also shortlisted for the Award.
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review, not her favourite de Kretser, and kimbofo’s, also mixed), which, the judges described, as “a witty, meticulously witnessed and boldly imaginative work that rages against racism, ageism and misogyny”. De Kretser has won the award twice before.
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light which deals with the state child care system and is told, say the judges, in an “astonishing voice that reinvents itself from age six to sixty”.
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review) is about a pregnant 16-year-old girl who is “locked into her housing commission flat by her Philippines-born Chinese mother for 100 days before the birth”. Among other things, the judges commented on the book’s “making visible the stories of those deemed powerless”.
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the first self-published novel to be shortlisted. It was also one of Jock Serong’s recommendations in the Warm Winter Read program I recently posted about. Publishers apparently found it “wearisome” and “repellant”, but it has been praised by some writers, whom I would call bold and fearless, like Helen Garner, Murray Bail and JM Coetzee. That tells us something (perhaps!) The judges called it “a uniquely witty and original contribution to Australian literature.”

Some random observations:

  • There are only five books this year, as against last year’s six. Did they only think five were worth it, or was The dogs going to be the sixth? I guess we’ll never know.
  • It is a nicely diverse list with more than half being by, to use modern terminology, people of colour. (I hate labelling but what to do?)
  • It looks like, for want of a better word, an “edgy” list, with little of the tried-and-true in terms of style, form and content. Excellent to see.

For posterity’s sake, here was the longlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
  • Larissa Behrendt’s After story
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light
  • Briohny Doyle’s Echolalia
  • Max Easton’s The magpie wing
  • Joh Hughes’ The dogs (withdrawn)
  • Jennifer Mills’ The airways
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days
  • Claire Thomas’ The performance
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ 7 1/2
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

A note on The dogs

I am not going to buy into the plagiarism debate, as I can’t know what Hughes did or didn’t know he was doing. However, I would like to comment on the publisher of this book, Upswell Publishing. This is an exciting new venture by Terri-ann White who did such a wonderful job at the University of Western Australia Press for many many years. The Guardian’s report (first link above) on the issue quoted White as saying that she “stands steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text”.

However, as more examples of parts of the text being identical or similar to various other works have been identified, White has realised the situation is not as she originally felt able to support. She has made a statement on her website, that:

I have published many writers who use collage and bricolage and other approaches to weaving in other voices and materials to their own work. All of them have acknowledged their sources within the book, usually in a listing of precisely where these borrowings come from. I should have pushed John Hughes harder on his lack of the standard mode of book acknowledgements where any credits to other writers (with permissions or otherwise), and the thanks to those nearest and dearest, are held. I regret that now, as you might expect. To have provided a note in this book with attribution would have been the only way to treat it.  I now recognise this as a breach of my trust.

The point I’d like to make is that we should not let this upsetting situation affect our support of Upswell. I subscribed to their list last year, and have again this year. The books are beautifully designed, the list is wonderfully varied in content, and White has a reputable track record. She and her stable deserve to be supported and encouraged.

Now, back to the Award

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, praised the shortlist for its

range of dynamic and diverse voices that address the experience of pain, intergenerational trauma and intergenerational dialogue with compassion, exceptional craft and rigorous unsentimentality.

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.

This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki.

The winner will be announced on 20 July.

What do you think of the shortlist?

* All other quotes in the Shortlist section come from the same The Guardian article.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the fourth decade (1988-1997)

Miles Franklin
Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presume Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

This is my fourth post in a little sub-series looking at the Miles Franklin Award by decade.

As with the first three, written back in 2016, I don’t plan to list all the decade’s winners, as you can find them on the Award’s official site. Instead, I’ll share some interesting snippets, inspired by my Trove meanders. This mostly involved The Canberra Times and The Australian Jewish News, because this period is still within copyright, meaning the NLA can only digitise newspapers which have given them permission to do so.

Men in the ascendant (again)

In my third decade post (linked below), I noted the increase in awards made to women. Just five awards were won by women in the first two decades combined, but in the third decade, four of the nine awards went to women. This reflected, I suggested, the flowering of writing by Australian women in the late 1970s and 1980s. However, it wasn’t to last. In the fourth decade, eight of the nine awards made went to men – and the woman who did win generated one of the Award’s biggest controversies (see below). Without spoiling my fifth decade post, this “bias” towards men continued for another ten years or more, which inspired, among other things, the establishment of the Stella Award in 2012 … but, I’m jumping ahead. Let’s stay in the nineties for the moment.

The skewing towards men, not surprisingly, carried through to the shortlists, with 31 men shortlisted over the decade to 18 women. However, when it comes to multiple listings, four writers, two men and two women, were shortlisted three times: Rodney Hall and David Malouf, Thea Astley and Janette Turner Hospital (who has never won it).

The men who won included previous winners Peter Carey, Tim Winton, and Rodney Hall. The others were Tom Flood, David Malouf, Alex Miller, Christopher Koch and David Foster. I admit that I didn’t know Tom Flood, but Dorothy Hewett was his mother. His winning book, Oceana Fine, was his only novel.

There wasn’t much discussion about the skewing back then, but I did love Celal Bayari, who wrote in the the University of New South Wales’ Tharunka paper about Elizabeth Jolley missing out in 1989:

Jolley good book (ha ha)

JOLLEY’S latest has just been omitted from the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award. That is a real shame because The Sugarmother is a great book.

Controversy (1)

The controversy concerned Helen Demidenko’s novel, The hand that signed the paper, which won in 1995. Bill (The Australian Legend) summarised the controversy beautifully in his post on the book, so why reinvent the wheel? Bill wrote:

For the benefit of non-Australians, the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award to Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper, the story of a Ukrainian family collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The granting of the Award to an anti-semitic work was justified on the grounds that Demidenko was telling the story of her people, until Demidenko, who would attend speaking engagements dressed in the costume of a Ukrainian peasant girl, was finally unmasked as Helen Darville, a University of Queensland student of entirely English background.

This was a multi-pronged controversy – and Bill explores some of the prongs in his excellent post. There were criticisms of the work itself: it was uneven and poorly written, it was racist/anti-semitic, it distorted history. There were criticisms of the author’s deception regarding her background, with some saying that the only reason they accepted this unpleasant book’s win was because the author was speaking for “her” people. (This feeds into current discussions about who can write what.) There was discussion about literary criticism – about whether it’s all about the text, or whether other considerations, like the author’s background, are relevant to assessing a work. There were discussions about the line between fact and fiction, particularly since Demidenko/Darville herself called her work “faction”. There were criticisms of plagiarism, which were subsequently overturned. There were suggestions that the author, around 24 at the time, was a disturbed young woman to be pitied. And, there were criticisms of the judges – of their decision in the first place, their refusal to admit they were wrong, and their not engaging in discussion. The novel was apparently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and then quietly un-shortlisted before the announcement. The controversy raged for months.

The book, by the way, had previously won the 1993 The Australian/Vogel LiteraryAward for unpublished manuscript, and in 1995 it also won the ALS Gold Medal.

The Canberra Times‘ literary editor at the time, Robert Hefner, suggested that the book “could well prove to be one of the most divisive books in Australian history”. Not surprisingly, it sold well. By August 1995, according to her publisher, it had sold 25,000 copies, and they were preparing to republish it under the author’s real name.

Controversy (2)

Lest you think, however, that this was the only Miles Franklin Award controversy of the decade, think again. The ongoing issue of the “Australian content” requirement raised its head during the decade too. In 1994, when Rodney Hall won for The grisly wife, The Canberra Times reports that, “The Georges’ Wife [Elizabeth Jolley], and Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, were disqualified because the judges decided they did not have enough Australian content”.

No award (again)

In both the second and third decades, there was a year in which no award was made. It happened again this decade but for a purely administrative reason, to do with changing the award’s timing from year of publication to year of announcement!

The value of awards

Given I’ve posted on the value of awards recently, I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of points that came out of this little piece of research.

David Malouf said, on winning in 1991 with The great world,

“An award like this is a bit like the Archibald to painting. Both are extremely well known and important … People who don’t necessarily buy a book when it first comes out are interested to see what books turn up on the short list and which book wins. That kind of interest is always very important.”

He also admits that winning awards offers reassurance:

“Writers are very diffident, basically. They’re always doubtful of themselves and it’s always good when you are offered approval for what you have done”

Similarly, Alex Miller, who won in 1993 for The ancestor game said:

“I decided it was terrific to be short-listed and that was that, and I just got on with my work, and then when I was told last Wednesday I really couldn’t believe it … It’s enormous validation and acknowledgment, for sure.

It’s a bit of a watershed, isn’t it, winning something like Miles Franklin.”

And Rodney Hall, winning in 1994 with The grisly wife, said “this has picked me up”.

I mentioned above sales for Demidenko/Darville’s book, but that had the “benefit” of controversy. Tim Winton’s 1992-winning Cloudstreet experienced a boost in sales. The Canberra Times reported less than two months after Winton’s win:

… Tim Winton returned recently from a 30-day promotional tour of the United States, where Graywolf’s beautiful hardback edition of his Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Cloudstreet has already sold more than 12,000 copies. In Australia, where it was published by McPhee Gribble and Penguin, sales have topped 60,000.

Let’s leave the fourth decade there!

Past posts in the series

Miles Franklin Award 2021 winner announced

Nothwithstanding this week’s Monday Musings posts on literary awards, I still like the Miles Franklin – partly because of its significance in the Australian literary firmament – and so I am sharing today’s announcement of this year’s winner which I watched via You Tube.

You may remember that this years shortlist was:

  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty (Lisa’s review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth (Lisa’s review)
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea
Book cover

And the winner is: Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth

(Lisa will be pleased!)

Just to recap, from my shortlist post: Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprised, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.

So, more on the winner …

This is Lohrey’s second listing for the Miles Franklin award, but her first win. The panel described the novel as a “profound mediation” on loss, with judging panel chair, Richard Neville commanding the “clarity” of her prose in exploring “loss at so many levels”. (Notably, Neville also mentioned the increasing cultural diversity appearing in the awards, by which I assume he meant, in the books submitted. Ninety-six titles were submitted.)

Amanda Lohrey spoke briefly, thanking various people – including family, publisher, editor, of course. She praised her publisher, the wonderful Text Publishing, for supporting “literary values” and she talked of the award’s benefactor, Miles Franklin, as “the great Australian nonconformist”. She also thanked the readers whom she described as an “indestructible tribe” in a world of Netflix (etc). She characterised the relationship between writer and readers as “an extraordinary exchange among strangers.” I like that.

Book cover

The presentation also included last year’s winner Tara June Winch congratulating Amanda Lohrey. She said that what she gained, in particular, from the award, was “a readership”. Isn’t that great to hear, because that – and the “gift of time” – is what we hope awards like this offer books and their writers.

And, finally, just for fun. Today The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on How to win the Miles Franklin: Analysing 64 years of data, by Pallavi Singhal. It looks at the usual issues like gender, origin (birth location, ethnicity), age, but also other points you may not have considered like length (“write about 400 pages”, it says), title style (“Begin your book title with ‘the’ and keep it short”) and publisher (Allen & Unwin is ahead at the moment)!

Do you have any thoughts on this year’s winner?

Miles Franklin Award 2021 shortlist

I haven’t posted on the Miles Franklin Award since 2019, and I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, but, despite my woeful record – I’ve yet to read any on the longlist – I felt it was about time I returned to Australia’s best known literary award.

Unfortunately, I was driving in the back blocks of northeast Victoria when the announcement was made, with no Internet connection in our room overnight. We have landed in civilisation – hmmm – depending on you definition, and are once more connected! I thought I’d start by sharing the longlist:

The longlist

Book cover
  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty (Lisa’s review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Gail Jones’ Our shadows
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendours (on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth (Lisa’s review)
  • Laura Jean Mckay’s The animals in that country (my, I wish I’d read this already, given its popularity on awards lists)
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone sky, gold mountain (on my TBR)
  • Philip Salom’s The fifth season (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile ((on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

The judges describe the spread as “‘a rich mix of well-established, early career and debut novelists whose work ranges from historical fiction to fabulism and psychologism”.

And now, the shortlist:

  • Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty
  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
  • Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea

Some random observations:

  • Two of the authors – Adiga and Wood – are not Australian-born or based, but meet the award’s criteria because their subject matter is Australian (that is, they present ‘Australian life in any of its phases’). Adiga won the Booker Prize in 2008 with The white tiger, and Wood is apparently the founder and publisher of Splice, a small UK-based press.
  • None of these books are on my TBR pile – wah – though I have been wanting to read Lohrey so this might be the impetus I need.
  • There appears to be less diversity in terms of author background, though Adiga is Indian.
  • There are four women and two men, which is fine, particularly given the award has rebalanced the gender representation well over recent years.
  • None of these authors have won the Award before, but two, Arnott and Lohrey, have been listed before.
  • Two – Pippos and Watts – are debut novelists.
  • Lisa (ANZLitLovers) will be happy as she was mightily impressed with Lohrey’s Labyrinth (see her review above).

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, said

‘In various ways each of this year’s shortlisted books investigate destructive loss: of loved ones, freedom, self and the environment … There is, of course, beauty and joy to be found, and decency and hope, largely through the embrace of community but, as the shortlist reminds us, often community is no match for more powerful forces.’

This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.

The winner will be announced on 15 July.

And, for a bit of fun, we saw this on a school notice board as we drove by today:

I always knock on the fridge door just in case salad’s dressing. (Eltham Primary School) 

What do you think – of the shortlist, I mean!?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian writers and the Miles Franklin Award

This is not going to be a treatise on the Miles Franklin Award and diversity. We all know literary awards have not been as diverse as they could have been (and that they still have a way to go). We know, too, that this is not only due to judging, but also reflects the fact that the publishing industry has not been as diverse as it could be. It is probably also true that, in the past at least, we readers have not demanded more diversity in our reading. However, this story is too complex for this post, and, anyhow, has been explored many times. Today, I simply want to celebrate those Indigenous Australian writers who have been listed for and/or won Australia’s (arguably) most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, in the spirit of bringing attention to their work as a body of literature.

Notwithstanding the above, I do need to make the point that it wasn’t until 2000 that we started seeing Indigenous Australian writers appear in the short and longlists for the award*.

  • 2000 Kim Scott’s Benang (won) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2007 Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (won) (my review)
  • 2011 Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (won) (my review)
  • 2012 Tony Birch Blood (shortlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby (longlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Alexis Wright The Swan Book (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2016 Tony Birch Ghost River (longlisted) (my review)
  • 2018 Kim Scott’s Taboo (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2019 Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (won) (my review)
  • 2020 Tony Birch’s The white girl (shortlisted) (my review)
  • 2020 Tara June Winch’s The yield (won) (my review)

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You could probably call this a round-up of the usual suspects, in terms of contemporary Indigenous Australian novelists, with Kim Scott and Tony Birch appearing three times, Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright twice each, and of course relative newbie, Tara June Winch, once. It’s notable that every book here deals with Indigenous issues. This is important for truth-telling, but it will be a measure of our maturity as a nation when Indigenous Australian writers can feel free of the need to carry these truths on their backs.

Anyhow, I wonder what Miles Franklin would say? When she said “without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil”, I don’t believe she was thinking of the real Indigenous people of this soil. However, I imagine that, were she living now, she would love the richness that the growth of Indigenous Australian literature has brought to Australian life and culture.

It seems apposite, then, to leave this (very) little tribute with the words of this year’s winner, Tara June Winch, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.” Absolutely. Let’s hope more and more diverse writers get to tell their stories to us. I – and I know many of my litblogging friends – love to read them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do read The yield, a complex but strong book which its author calls “a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”

Have you read any of the listed books, and if so, would you like to share your favourite/s?

* I may have missed a writer or two, as I didn’t find complete lists of short and longlisted authors from the beginning of the award, but I think my point still stands.

Miles Franklin Award 2019 Winner announced!

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipWell, good news for me (because it’s all about me of course!) Not only had I read more of the longlist and the shortlist than is my usual achievement, but one of those books is the winner – and a wonderful winner it is too, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review)!

Really, as much as I liked the other contenders I’d read, I did hope this would win – because it is truth-telling of the most honest sort. Indeed, Lucashenko has said that she expected backlash (which didn’t come) from indigenous communities for her no-holds barred story about a rather dysfunctional indigenous family in which violence and substance abuse, in particular, is no stranger.  Lucashenko, does, of course, underpin this squarely with references to/evocation of the causes, that is, the intergenerational trauma indigenous people have experienced after two centuries of dispossession (and all the policies and practices that have ensued to deny them equality, dignity, and thus the health and security that we all deserve as citizens of this country.)

But, in addition to this honest, real story about contemporary indigenous lives and culture – about the challenge of marrying traditional beliefs and values with contemporary life – is the fact that it’s a rip-roaring tale. Humorous, page-turning, with colourful, individuated characters. If you haven’t read it yet, you surely will now!?

Jason Steger, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, says

It’s not surprising that Melissa Lucashenko says Too Much Lip was her most difficult book to write. After all, it deals with physical and substance abuse, violence, marginalisation, displacement and dispossession, racism and incarceration within the experience of one Indigenous family.

He quotes the judges as saying that she “weaves a (sometimes) fabulous tale with the very real politics of cultural survival to offer a story of hope and redemption for all Australians”. Exactly!

I apologise for the delayed announcement – I was at reading group last night, and was distracted by our exciting discussions!

But, woo hoo! This is an inspired and inspiring choice! Well done judges, I say.

What do you think?

Miles Franklin Award 2019 shortlist

Well, good news for me in that I had read three of the longlist, and two of those have made it through to the shortlist. Interestingly, the one that didn’t, Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe, has been making such a splash that I rather expected it to be shortlisted. But, as we all know, you can never second guess literary judges.

So, here is the shortlist:

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Nancy’s review) (Hachette)
  • Gregory Day’s A sand archive (Lisa’s review) (Picador)
  • Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (my review) (Picador)
  • Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (Text)
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) (UQP)
  • Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia (Lisa’s review) (Picador)

Rodney Hall, A stolen season

Some random observations:

  • There’s fair diversity here, with Ahmad and Lucashenko both making to to the shortlist.
  • Three women and three men! That’s neat.
  • Rodney Hall has won twice before, for Just relations and The grisly wife, and has now been shortlisted four more times.
  • Lucashenko has, this year, been shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Victorian and NSW Premiers’ literary awards, and the Australian Book Industry awards.
  • This will be the fourth time that Gail Jones has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.
  • And, three of the six books were published by Picador! Congrats to them.

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipStefanie Convery, writing in The Guardian (Australia), reports that:

Judge Bernadette Brennan said this year’s authors were “unafraid to take risks” in their narratives, which addressed “complex, disparate and urgent aspects of contemporary Australian life”.

This is certainly true of the two I’ve read …

Michaela Boland, writing for the ABC News, spoke to Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and wrote this:

While Mr Ahmad said that [winning the Prize] would be welcomed, the honour itself had already eased the insecurity and inadequacy he said was inherent to being an Arab Muslim immigrant in Australia.

“Three years ago our immigration minister Peter Dutton said second or third-generation Lebanese Australians like me are the mistakes of the Fraser government,” he said, after he learned his second book was one of the six short-listed.

It’s so distressing that Ahmad and, clearly, many other Australian citizens have to live their lives feeling this way – and that our government doesn’t seem to think it has a role to play in setting a welcoming, inclusive tone.

Anyhow, the judges, as I wrote in my longlist post, for this year are almost the same as last year’s: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW),  Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Bernadette Brennan (author and literary critic). Brennan replaces last year’s Susan Sheridan.

The winner will be announced on 30 July in Sydney.

What do you think?

Miles Franklin Award 2019 Longlist

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeWoo hoo! Last year I had only read and reviewed one book on the Miles Franklin longlist, but this year I’ve read three! It’s a record (for me, anyhow!)

Here is the list:

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Nancy’s review) (Hachette)
  • Robbie Arnott’s Flames  (Lisa’s review) (Text)
  • Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review) (Fourth Estate)
  • Gregory Day’s A sand archive (Lisa’s review) (Picador)
  • Lexi Freiman’s Inappropriation ( A&U)
  • Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (my review) (Picador)
  • Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (Text)
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) (UQP)
  • Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia (Lisa’s review) (Picador)
  • Tracy Sorenson’s The lucky galah (Lisa’s review) (Picador).

Rodney Hall, A stolen seasonSome random observations:

  • There are 10 on the longlist. The Miles Franklin judges have, in recent years, not constrained themselves to a set number for their longlist. In 2018 there were 11 books, In 2016 and 2017, there were 9 books, and in 2015 there were 10.)
  • Half of the longlisted books are by women writers. Two of these, Gail Jones and Melissa Lucashenko, were also longlisted for the Stella Prize.
  • Rodney Hall has won twice before, for Just relations and The grisly wife, and been shortlisted three more times.
  • I was little surprised not to see Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge on the list – but this is always the way. I accept that!
  • There are debut authors here – including Trent Dalton and Tracy Sorenson – and many well established ones (who don’t seen to be named!)

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipState Library of NSW Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville, said, on behalf of the judging panel:

The 2019 Miles Franklin longlist yet again highlights a mixture of new and established writers. It showcases ten of the most vibrant voices of Australian fiction speaking to us of lives facing, or having endured, some version of extremity. Angry, funny, contemplative and urgent, these voices—which include a galah—explore personal, historical and ecological loss, cultural inheritances and disenfranchisement, and the fraught bonds of friendships, families and communities.

I am rushing to go out… so will leave that for you to think about.

The judges for this year are almost the same as last year’s: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW),  Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Bernadette Brennan (author and literary critic). Brennan replaces last year’s Susan Sheridan.

The shortlist will be announced on 2 July at the State Library of New South Wales, and the winner on 30 July in Sydney.

What do you think?